Pip Cheshire

The Age of Optimism

Ahhh, the unseen hand, lurking in interstitial spaces, wires from here to there, ending with, as the metaphor goes, a spark of life.  An arcing leap of electrons to raise, Frankenstein from the table, the Xbox into action, and a light to read by. It’s such a trivial end, those wires silently snaking their way through the walls, for a process that began with the thunderous rush of water-powered turbines deep within our national pride. The moving of mountains, the damming of rivers, capping of geysers, diggers, huge trucks and scrapers, concrete batch plants, hard hats and construction towns whose names are a rollcall of mid twentieth century optimism – Roxbrough, Otematata, Wairakei, Benmore and Tongariro.

These are not projects circumscribed by the RMA, not measured and weighed in the courts, but wrought instead by gelignite and sweat labour, building the turbine halls to light up a newly industrialising and urbanising country. From those deep subterranean halls the grids and armatures set out city-bound, cable-carrying pylons stretched across the remotest valley, branding the land as barbed wire did a generation earlier.

At the city edge aluminium frames, threaded with glass and porcelain insulators, tame cross country voltages in readiness for city streets.  From there a string of cables, boxes and transformers step down voltages and make ready the electron’s final dash through wires, fuse boxes, cable trays and walls.  Though more visible than the subterranean world of water and gas-carrying pipes and tubes, the very presence of this clutter suggests a knowable system, traceable from lake to switch.  Yet what of those boxes with their lightning bolt injunctions against entry, their seemingly clandestine placement; a terminus for cables, a junction for voltages and the birthplace of wires?

The generation of electricity once involved heroic acts of engineering that cleaved the land within the unilateral certainty of land acquisition for the public good, the state that gave us free milk had the unassailable right to flood valleys.  Just as the land wore the state’s imprimatur so the end of that distribution system, the substation, invariably wore the colours of the local supply authority in a neighbourhood manifestation of the state’s paternalism.  Though many still proudly wear these colours despite falling prey to market zealots, others are placed with seemly clandestine reticence in the shadows, or are so nondescript as to be invisible within a cluttered streetscape.

Where once rivers were tamed by the bravado and confidence of a singular vision of industrialised modernity, it is now the hard hat engineers who have been tamed by the pluralities of a contemporary society in which resource use is arbitrated and the ownership of generation, distribution and dissemination have been broken up and privatised. Those once noble little structures humming away in service of our welfare state have become commodities, bits of infrastructural kit to be squeezed in where they can.

I know how these things find a place, no longer in the public realm, not strung up a post like those little round American tanks that hang off city lamp posts, but on the end user’s land, bundled together with mimic panels and sprinkler pumps hitching up buildings at the end of the infrastructural line, Manapouri’s final resting place.  I have struggled to accommodate their imperious requirements for access and clearance within buildings that are always too tight. I have drawn easements and battled with signage, trying to hide those little lightning strikes.  The boxes are, alas, prone to explosion and fire and need containment, masonry fire walls and a bund to gather up the toxic stuff within should that escape, and so they remain cowering at the edge of vision and we are not easily able to polish their fins or spotlight the control panels in public view.

It is the sad demise of a nation’s optimistic breaking of the land, that the end of the line should be locked away unheralded.  In doing so, substations  join other visible instruments of nation building down on their luck – the once mighty post office with coat of arms and flag flying offering connections across the globe –  now a post shop panhandling for small change down the back of a mall.  Or how about the mighty Ministry of Works, the progenitor of all that cutting, slicing, flooding and tunnelling, where are those serried ranks of engineers and draftsmen now?  Cut and diced, sold off along with railway, airline and bank, the ministry’s very name an echo of Stalinist centralism.

Let us give a wistful nod to those fading remnants of an age of optimism and collective ownership, and  wonder whether the new owners will be as proud of their gear as those elected citizens who manned the nation’s power boards and whose works still, in some dark corner, hum along.

Pip Cheshire


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